Book Review: Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman


Savage Harvest book coverI only purchased this book because I read a short excerpt in my National Geographic magazine and thought maybe it sounded interesting. I had never heard of Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in New Guinea in 1961 on a trip to collect art for his father’s new Museum of Primitive Art. I didn’t know that his boat had capsized or that he tried to swim to shore or that the most prevalent rumor about his death was that he had been killed and eaten by one of the New Guinea tribes.

I learned a lot from Savage Harvest, which really drew me in with its sprawling vistas and cultural questions. Did the tribes of New Guinea know the truth about Rockefeller’s death? Would they reveal their secrets to Hoffman as he delved deeper into their culture and into their lives? The narrative expertly wove together Hoffman’s quest for answers with an account of Rockefeller’s journey, and it didn’t skimp on historical background.

Not only did the story hold my attention, the writing style far succeeded what I had expected for a nonfiction, rather historical account. Hoffman’s journalistic skills and rhythmic writing style recreated entire landscapes, conversations, and tribal customs. Sometimes, when I lifted my head up from the book, I was surprised to see that I sat in the subway rather than in a ceremonial hut filled with smoke and naked, dancing bodies. More than once, I nearly missed my stop because I had become so engrossed in the details of this book.

I definitely hope you’ll give this book a chance, even if it doesn’t seem like something you’d normally pick up off the shelf. I, for one, am glad that I did.

Here is an excerpt from the book, a descriptive passage that I really enjoyed:

The moon had been huge and full and so bright it was a dull sun in the darkness, making shadows off the trees and the bow waves silver. … The Arafura is the color of pale opal, heavy with silt carried by a thousand brown rivers that course from central New Guinea’s great mountains, jagged, steep sawteeth reaching sixteen thousand feet. The peaks trap the heavy, moisture-laden tropical clouds, and every rivulet feeds another and another, and they grow larger and intertwine and curve as the land flattens, and it flattens quickly, suddenly, and for a hundred miles to the sea this land is without a hill, a rock, or even a pebble.


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